Special to The History Place
The premise of this action film, starring Angelina Jolie in the title role, is the existence of Soviet sleeper spies inside the United States. This might seem a stretch, had just such a cell not recently been arrested in North Jersey. On June 29th, the Associated Press story led off like this: “They sometimes worked in pairs and pretended to be married so they could blend in as the couple next door while working as spies in a throwback to the Cold War, complete with fake identities, invisible ink, coded radio transmissions and encrypted data to avoid detection, authorities say.”
The AP piece went on to say: “Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Farbiarz, speaking Monday in federal court in Manhattan, called the allegations against 10 people living in the Northeast ‘the tip of the iceberg’ of a conspiracy of Russia's intelligence service, the SVR, to collect inside U.S. information, the biggest such bust in recent years.”
The big difference between Salt and the real deal is that the latter group apparently never amounted to a hill (make that spill) of beans. To the contrary, their modest accomplishments on behalf of Mother Russian weren’t sufficient to support an indictment for espionage. The best Uncle Sam could do was squeeze out guilty pleas for representing a foreign government without properly registering as its agents.
Salt on the other hand depicts a cohort of highly trained sleeper agents, groomed since early childhood to pass for bona fide Americans, and honed to human weapons of mass destruction, by a diabolical spymaster and then planted with adoptive parents around the U.S.
Sadly for the spy master, in 1990, or thereabouts, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, the Soviet Union spun apart, and America was declared the winner of the Cold War. A less determined villain might have retied to a nice Dacha and, after a few years, scratched his creations from his Christmas card list.
Not this guy. He arrives in the States with a plan to activate his creatures and precipitate a nuclear exchange calculated to resurrect the USSR, phoenix-like, from the radioactive ashes.
Beyond the oppressively loud soundtrack, the James Bondish chase scenes, and the indefatigable super-hero acrobatics of Ms. Jolie, there lurks a sobering back story: Fixated since September 11, 2001, by radical Islamic terrorists and a war on terror being prosecuted on two fronts, most of us have lost sight of the thousands of thermonuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles still presumably in good operating order in Russia, the Ukraine, and who knows where else.
Salt is the seasoning to the North Jersey spy cell story. At this more sinister level, it is a cautionary tale about how Russia (and “Red” China, as arcane as that label may sound at first blush) remain not only major economic, but also geo-political, opponents.
Who can say for certain that the relatively innocuous nature of the North Jersey cell is typical of the humint assets the late, great KGB planted stateside? We are well advised to keep one eye on our old Cold War opponents, while the other is cocked toward the Middle East.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action.
Jim Castagnera, a Philadelphia journalist and lawyer, is the author of "Al Qaeda Goes to College: Impact of the War on Terror on American Higher Education" (Praeger 2009) and Handbook for Student Law (Peter Lang 2010).